13.02.2012 - Natural Sciences Sector

Tales Set in Stone: protecting Karst water resources for a quarter of the world’s population

© Burren and Cliffs of Moher UNESCO Global Geopark/Ronan Hennessy Burren karstic surface, Burren and Cliffs of Moher UNESCO Global Geopark

Over 335 projects in about 150 countries with contributions of thousands of Earth scientists attest to the scientific and applied quality of the International Geoscience Programme (IGCP) since its inception in 1972. Now, 40 years later, there are many stories to tell and the IGCP has decided to celebrate with a publication of some of these Tales set in Stone. In the weeks leading up to the official celebration, we will be using a selection of stories to introduce the 5 major themes of the IGCP: Earth Resources, Global Change, Geohazards, Hydrogeology and Deep Earth.

One such tale is that of the global efforts to understand the nature of Karst systems, from which an estimated 20-25% of the world’s people obtain drinking water either directly or indirectly. Karst landscape and aquifer systems are formed within especially soluble bedrock such as limestone, dolomite and gypsum in which large underground rivers flow through caves that have been dissolved by groundwater. Karst landscapes range from the bare, flat pavements of western Ireland’s Burren to rolling plains or the iconic karst peaks that line southwest China’s Li River. Serious environmental problems occur in karst regions.

Many people depend on karst aquifers for drinking water. Yet there are problems with water quality and with water access because, typically, the water flows underground and thus is limited at the surface which creates particularly severe problems in places where monsoonal climates include a prolonged dry season and, in contrast to the frequently high quality well or spring water found in other geological settings, contaminants can quickly infiltrate the ground with little filtration, travelling rapidly through underground rivers systems to join the water supply from springs or wells. Exploitation of karst water resources sometimes demands special techniques.

Numerous contributions have been made through the years, including advancements in groundwater tracing, geophysics, methods for mapping underground river courses, and in a major effort to develop groundwater vulnerability mapping methods. Five IGCP projects, of which one is ongoing, focused on Karst systems between 1990 and today. This work greatly enhanced international communication among the world’s karst scientists, and established global correlations not just between scientists but between the landscapes and systems themselves.

A substantial outgrowth from these projects was the establishment, in 2008, of the UNESCO Category II International Research Center on Karst (IRCK), hosted within the Chinese Academy of Sciences. IRCK aims to improve understanding of karst systems on a global scale, to keep the fragile karst environment ecologically sound, and to promote sustainable socio-economic development in karst regions as one of the world’s most fragile environmental systems.

Extract taken from Tales set in Stone – 40 Years of the International Geoscience Programme IGCP, published in 2012 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

Related projects:

  • Environmental Change and Sustainability in Karst Systems (IGCP/SIDA 598)
  • Global Study of Karst Aquifers and Water Resources 2005-2010 (IGCP 513)
  • Global Correlation of Karst Hydrogeology and Relevant Ecosystems 2000-2004 (IGCP 448)
  • Karst Processes and the Global Carbon Cycle 1995-1999 (IGCP 379)
  • Geology, Climate, Hydrology and Karst Formation 1990-1994 (IGCP 299)



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